You couldn't get much more evocative than this cover, could you. The picture doesn't actually represent the edition I've been reading, which is a three-in-one volume from Everyman's Library, but I couldn't resist the wonderfully noir-ish photo here. For this is, of course, a wonderfully noir-ish novel by the master of the genre.
Born in America, but educated in England at the prestigeous Dulwich College, Raymond Chandler published this, his first novel, in 1939, when he was over forty years old. He'd been writing for years -- reviews, short stories, even poetry -- but it's in this novel that his wonderful prose style found an outlet that brought him success and a great deal of admiration from other writers in particular -- 'he writes like a slumming angel', said Ross D MacDonald, one of the many crime writers whose work shows the influence of Chandler.
You may well have read this, or seen the 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but in case you haven't -- Philip Marlowe, a private eye in 1930s Los Angeles, is invited to a large mansion where he meets General Sternwood, a dying millionaire. Sternwood is concerned about his younger daughter Carmen, who appears to have run up large gambling debts, and asks Marlowe to investigate. While there he also meets Vivien, Carmen's older sister, who thinks the General may want him to find her husband, Rusty Regan, who has recently disappeared. Marlowe is soon plunged into a seedy underworld of gangsters, purveyors of indecent books and photos, and photographers who drug underage girls before photgraphing them naked. Several deaths and much secrecy and double-crossing later, Marlowe gets to the heart of the matter and, at the end, does his best to make sure the person responsible is taken care of in the best possible way under the circumstances.
The plot is very complex and at times almost confusing, or at least demanding of attention to follow its twists and turns. But what makes this novel so hugely enjoyable is the marvellously vivid picture it gives of the depraved underworld of post-depression California, with its gambling dens, drug addicts, wealthy nymphomaniacs and crime rings. Marlowe himself, despite an addiciton to alcohol, is basically a good guy with a strong moral sense and an attractive ability to see his own failings. But above all what I enjoyed here was Chandler's wonderful prose.
This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. There were full-length mirrors and crystal doodads all over the place. The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out. The windows stared towards the darkening foothills. It was going to rain soon. There was pressure in the air already.
I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony and sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong-looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion.
This was my second read of The Big Sleep and I loved every minute. Next up is Farewell My Lovely, but I'm spreading these novels out with other things sandwiched in between. Highly recommended.